Our ‘post-truth’ world and unconscious gender bias: an example from the Financial Times

Sally Shortall is the Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy, in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy.  In our blog she shares some thoughts about gender bias in a 'post truth' world.


I have long considered my enjoyment of the weekend Financial Times as something of a guilty pleasure. My friends tend to associate the paper with right wing capitalist sentiments. I have always found the quality of the economic analysis and international news coverage excellent. In particular I enjoy the Life and Arts section to which many academics contribute on political, historical and sociological matters. I am heartened by, and often quote Noam Chomsky, who has also lauded the Financial Times for the quality of its international news coverage.

At the moment I am immersed in a project for the Scottish Government, looking at the role of women in agriculture. I have been all over Scotland interviewing women and men about women’s role in agriculture, in farming organisations, and considering cultural practices that impact on gender roles on the farm. I have studied this question now for more than two decades, and I am struck by the huge strides in gender equality, combined with continuing unconscious gender bias, and outright sexism. I am analysing the data right now, so constantly thinking about these questions. The other question I have researched in recent years is how knowledge gains legitimacy. Who decides what the truth is? We now have phrases like ‘post-truth’. Different versions of the truth vie to be seen as the correct one. This question, as we all know, is particularly pertinent in the current climate.

So it was with delight that I picked up the Financial Times recently, and saw that Tim Harford had an excellent article asking what we can do to champion the truth. He presents the problem nicely. It is in the interest of some groups to manipulate facts, and he gives the example of the tobacco industry going back to the 1950s. Tim Harford presents some of the ‘problems’ with facts: they are boring, people can feel threatened by the truth, and an untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts by being easier to understand and remember. He reports that several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. Our memories fade, and we remember only the myth, because the myth was constantly repeated. Tim Harford argues that one way to try and combat this problem is to nurture scientific curiosity. A group of prestigious social scientists has carried out research that shows those who are curious about the truth, and are motivated to seek it out and look beyond the repetition of a false claim, are those most likely to be persuaded by facts.

This was the first article I read on that Saturday, and I then turned to the main section of the paper. I was struck by the headline on the front page that stated ‘Tesco boss fears white men on boards are “endangered”’. There was a further report on page eleven, with a title that repeats ‘Tesco chairman claims white men “endangered”’. The caption on that article reads: ‘women from ethnic minority backgrounds are in a “propitious period” Tesco’s John Allan said’. Three headlines then: men are threatened and women from ethnic minorities have the advantage. The text, for those who did read it, notes that John Allan is one of eight white men on a board of eleven. Tesco appointed half of the board slots it filled in 2016 with women, which meant that they went from having one woman on the board in 2015 to three in 2016, slightly more than 25%. The article reports that management experts do not agree with Mr Allan’s rosy assessment of UK board diversity. The article says that women account for only 29 per cent of directors appointed in the UK last year, the lowest proportion since 2012. Why then do these articles lead with false claims from Mr Allan? Tim Harford shows that the myth is remembered because it is constantly repeated. This is what has happened here – the false claim is repeated three times, and only to those who read the whole article will the counter-argument be clear. Tim Harford could have used this article as an example for his piece in the magazine.

There are two issues that concern me here. One is the constant repetition of a myth around John Allan’s statement. This is particularly troubling when a different section of the paper has an excellent article about the dangers of this type of presentation of reality. The second is the subliminal message which is, at best, an example of unconscious gender bias; there are no barriers for women, it is ‘in fact’ white men who are under threat.

Rural proofing: magic bullet or rural vote-catcher?

Sally Shortall is the Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy, in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy.  In our latest blog she looks at the issue of rural proofing.
We all know that living in the countryside may mean having to travel further to access shops, schools, GP surgeries and hospitals, while some services available in urban areas are simply unobtainable.  Communities may complain that they are overlooked and individuals sometimes feel isolated.  Rural proofing is intended to address these kinds of inequalities but is it really the magic bullet that will solve everyone’s problems?
The UK Government defines the process thus: “Rural proofing is integral to the policy making cycle. It requires us to make sure that the needs and interests of rural people, communities and businesses in England are properly considered. This applies to the development and implementation of all policies and programmes. For central government, rural proofing means assessing policy options to be sure we get the fairest solutions in rural areas.” 
What could be better or more desirable than ensuring fairness all round when you are designing policies?  But like most things in life, the reality is much more complicated.  The questions we should be asking seem simple: what is rural, who is disadvantaged and what are the problems policies need to address?  Unfortunately this is seldom the starting point for policymaking.
In my career as a social scientist working in rural studies I have spent a lot of time looking at the ways in which governments try to design and implement policies that are “fair” to both urban and rural communities.  It is a challenge that faces governments worldwide and rural proofing seems to offer a useful tool.  But too easily it becomes an all-purpose mallet to be applied without precision across cultures and circumstances.  In some instances it seems to miss the mark completely. 
In 2015 I was able to spend a month in Monash University in Melbourne to do research on rural proofingthere and to have discussions and provide a briefing paper and presentations about it about it for policy makers.  I quickly realised that their thinking about “rural” focused on what the Australians refer to as “the country”.  It is a term that has a pleasant old world sound to it, a nod to European roots.  But it fails to take into account the truly remote outback which is home to indigenous Australians or to consider the very real disadvantages they experience.  In Australia – as in the UK – how you define “rural” is highly politicised.
Rural proofing as a concept originated with the English Rural White Paper in 2000. My colleagues here in the Centre for Rural Economy have long been concerned with rural proofing, and Jane Atterton wrote in 2008that the concept needed to be reviewed. Since then more critical questions have been asked, by the House of Commons in 2009 and the OECD in 2011. It is an English concept, and applying it more widely is always destined to be problematic.   But even in England such a blanket approach often feels inappropriate.  In a recent Lords debate Lord Beith (formerly an MP for a rural constituency himself) argued in favour of rural proofing and observed “Surely we cannot allow ourselves to stumble into a situation where you have to be well off to live in the countryside”.  Given the discrepancy between house prices in city and countryside, living in a rural area in England is already well beyond the pockets of many people.  Indeed, England is an anomaly in having a countryside that represents aspiration more often than it does deprivation.  Of course you will find some disadvantaged communities and individuals there, but can rural proofing address such specific needs?  Can it truly ensure that elusive “fairness”?
Scotland has always been more wary of rural proofing, arguing for a much more targeted approach via its Highland and Islands Council.  Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is currently developing a guidance framework for rural proofing, very much following the English model, but related to its own Rural Needs Act.  In work I am carrying out with colleagues at the Northern Ireland Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, we have highlighted concerns that such a blanket approach could result in unrealistic wish lists, regardless of practical and resource constraints.  Providing “equitable” services cannot mean providing the same services in town and country.  A small rural school or health provider may be popular locally but provide a poor service when measured against what is available in urban areas.  If this is the case, local facilities should not automatically be protected via rural proofing, rather than being amalgamated in order to achieve improved services.
Rural areas are different from towns and cities and the needs of their residents are often different.  But relying on rural proofing to address every rural problem will not ensure fairness.  All too often it is a process implemented as a rural vote-catcher by governments as they approach election time.  A more useful strategy would be to identify specific problems then design the policy to address those.  If you do not know what needs fixing, how can you target an effective solution?